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Many questions remain in GM wheat case

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Matthew Weaver
It's still uncertain what kind of biotech wheat turned up in an Oregon field in the spring of 2013, or when the USDA will release results of its ongoing investigation into the incident, industry experts said during a panel discussion at the Tri-State Grain Growers Convention in Spokane

SPOKANE — It’s still unclear how genetically modified wheat ended up in an Oregon last spring, and industry members aren’t sure when the USDA will provide the answer.

The timeline for USDA’s investigation is still unknown, said Shannon Schlecht, U.S. Wheat Associates. A previous USDA investigation into genetically modified LibertyLink rice took more than a year, he said.

Kristin Schneider, global wheat breeding lead for Monsanto, said the company expected results “soon,” but that she did not have a timeline.

Schlecht and Schneider were part of a panel with Columbia Grain, Inc. senior vice president Kurt Haarmann and Washington State University molecular plant scientist Michael Neff during the Tri-State Grain Growers Convention in Spokane.

Other details offered during the discussion included:

• Schneider said she does not know whether Monsanto or the USDA know the exact type of wheat that turned up in the Oregon field. DNA can be used to show what something is not, but not to conclusively prove what it is, she said.

“Without having the material from which all of this was derived to actually compare to makes it a little more complicated,” she said, noting the wheat may not be a true breeding variety, but a mixture of something, adding another layer of complexity.

• Neff said there is no credible, reproducible, scientific evidence that genetically modified foods are dangerous because they are GM. That’s an important point for the industry to make in a civil, reasonable manner, he said.

• Halting GMO research would “slow down what we need to be speeding up, which is learning more about how to grow plants more efficiently and more effectively on fewer acres,” Neff said.

• Neff would like to see smaller companies and land-grant universities gain access to biotech research patented by Monsanto. It’s available for research purposes, but because of patent restrictions it’s not available to develop products for use by producers, he said. “In the end, the large companies will benefit from that. They may lose some of the market share, but that may be one of the ways to get more public acceptance.”

• Schneider said GM wheat won’t be available on he market before the next decade.

• Schlecht said the United States, Canada and Australia are planning to revisit and renew their joint statement to pursue the opportunities that biotech wheat provides.

• Haarmann said biotech acceptance on the global market will likely come from a nontraditional exporting country other than Canada, Australia or the U.S. A large country, either India or China, will likely move to either export or buy the product.

“That will be the tipping point,” he said.

• Haarmann said the Pacific Northwest emerged a winner from the GM wheat case in that it demonstrated an ability to handle a complicated situation, satisfy its customer base and protect its supplier base by relying on science.



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